OPINION: Australia’s step back on climate change

By Tony Mohr September 20, 2013
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The government’s new direction on climate change could have disastrous effects, says Tony Mohr.

EARLY IN SEPTEMBER, BUSHFIRES broke out in Sydney’s west. That is, less than a fortnight after the end of winter, temperatures over 30 degrees led to the kind of conditions we have come to expect in the height of summer.

Ask not when we are going to see the effects of climate change. It is already here. In light of that, however, Australia’s laws to help tackle global warming are working.

Australia’s climate laws are more than simply a price on carbon pollution. They are a series of laws that, in combination, intend to set Australia on the path to cutting pollution quickly and effectively.

The Clean Energy Finance Corporation, or CEFC, is a ‘green bank’ investing billions in exciting new technology. It has already funded numerous ventures in renewable electricity. It is expected to help create nearly 30,000 jobs in the world’s next boom industry by 2030.

Effects of clean energy

Since the laws kicked in on 1 July last year, electricity pollution has fallen by 12 million tonnes – the equivalent of taking 2 ½ million cars off the road. Clean energy has grown to 12 per cent of electricity production, which is modest by world standards but increasing steadily.

More than a million Australian homes have rooftop solar panels, up from just a few thousand five years earlier.

And, funnily enough, the national economy has kept ticking over without a blip.


The national price on carbon pollution is, however, the centrepiece. It is the tool that will let us cut pollution by levels that we will need to sustain our life support systems in the future.

The price makes polluters pay for permits that allow them to pollute. The more we want to cut pollution, the more those permits cost, creating an incentive for a cleaner, smarter economy.

Today, however, Australia stands at a crossroads.

The new government has made no secret of its intention to comprehensively tear up all of the progress we have made on climate change.

In fact, it has already started the process. In its first week in office the new government told the Climate Commission, the body that gives the public information about the problem of climate change and potential solutions, to close its operations. It has also made moves to shut down the Climate Change Authority, which advises the government on targets to cut emissions, and the CEFC.

Australia’s climate future

The new government’s alternate plans? Well, it’s hard to say, because there have been very few precise announcements. But here is what we do know.

The government proposes replacing the price on pollution with ‘direct action’ on climate change. Rather than a market mechanism that makes polluting companies pay for their emissions, ‘direct action’ uses taxpayers’ money to create a fund that’s capped at $2.55 billion over four years. The fund is used to pay polluting companies to reduce emissions, but it is capped, so if the program turns out to be more expensive than planned, Australia will not meet its international targets to cut pollution.

Research conducted by the Climate Institute and WWF Australia suggests ‘direct action’ is likely to lead to a nine per cent increase in pollution by 2020, not the 5 to 25 per cent cut Australia has committed to through the United Nations process.

While the carbon price requires polluters to cut their pollution or pay for it, ‘direct action’ gives money to businesses that choose to pollute less.

Global warming is not some remote, abstract threat. It is here, today, creating the conditions that cause bushfires in September.

If our leaders are serious about stopping what is already a dangerous trend, they need to have serious policies. Scrapping a price on carbon pollution and the CEFC in favour of a volunteer grants program is a step in the wrong direction.

Tony Mohr is the Australian Conservation Foundation’s climate change program manager.